By Michael Miner
The Tribune put a City Council meeting under the microscope, examined its specimen for eight months on end, and finally wrote a long, forceful dissertation on the toxicology of civic government.
"Thumbsucker," exclaimed reporters at the rival Sun-Times. A self-important, Pulitzer-driven thumbsucker.
The enduring difference between Chicago's two dailies is rarely plainer than it was just made by their dueling council inquisitions. "Tribune reporters who attended the meeting tracked down exactly what happened in each of the thousands of actions the council took that day," that paper reported. "And the results provide a fascinating window into the inner workings of government in Chicago.
"Before the February session, Tribune reporters attended committee meetings at which legislation was considered. And in the months after the meeting, a mountain of documents was mined, and scores of interviews were conducted with aldermen, bureaucrats, lawyers, lobbyists and other council insiders....Hundreds of ordinances enacted or proposed at the meeting were inspected, as was a videotape of the two-hours-plus session. And the 1,008-page official journal, published two weeks after the meeting, was studied from cover to cover."
The inquiry was distilled into last Sunday's editorial, which denounced "Mayor Daley and his lock-step loyalists" and reminded us that "only a handful of the 2,749 formal actions taken at that Feb. 7 meeting--which lasted all of 2 hours and 9 minutes--were described out loud."
Here was devastating evidence of the carefree way our legislators conduct the city's business. If each of those 2,749 formal actions had been given just token debate--say, ten minutes' worth--democracy would have been honored, and the meeting would have lasted all of 19 days, 2 hours, and 10 minutes.
The Sun-Times, which on a good day can scrape together seven reporters if it borrows from the food section, goes about journalism differently. It practices synecdochic reporting. Instead of contemplating the social organism of 50 aldermen, it picked out one guy, searched his pockets, and ran him out of a job. It acted on the old-fashioned assumption that the ungentlemanly point of investigative journalism is not to open a "fascinating window into the inner workings of government," but to pin hides to walls. Not that the Huels-Tadin-Daley triangle didn't tell us plenty about how Chicago works.
I'm probably safe in assuming Patrick Huels didn't sleep well at night once he heard Charles Nicodemus and Chuck Neubauer baying at his heels. Would he have been half as fretful knowing he was the object of the Tribune's urbanologists?
That Old Cubs Magic
A startling circulation dip at the Tribune has been laid to every imaginable factor but the quality of the paper itself. According to recent Audit Bureau of Circulations figures, daily Tribune circulation dropped 3.9 percent for the six-month period ending September 30, the worst performance among the nation's top dailies. (Second worst was the Sun-Times, where daily circulation slipped 2.3 percent.)
Reporting the calamity, the Tribune said David Murphy, that paper's ingenious director of consumer marketing sales, believes the losses "are partly attributable to poor seasons by the city's baseball teams," with the death of Mike Royko also having an "immeasurable" impact. Media writer Tim Jones went on to report that circulation per se is increasingly viewed by today's press lords as an antiquated vestige of a bygone era when metropolitan dailies thought of themselves as a mass medium.
Royko happened to be lauded as the quintessential newsman last week at "The Purposes of Journalism," a forum sponsored by the Medill School of Journalism and the Committee of Concerned Journalists. The setting being academic, high-minded virtue reigned. But in fact, Royko was a commodity, his Tribune assignment being to provide not news but Royko. After he died the Tribune soon replaced him on page three with the staff writer who most thinks, writes, and sounds like him on the telephone.
The Tribune reports that circulation rallied some in August and September, which is the period when the Sox were dumping many of their best players and blowing off the season. Under the circumstances, David Murphy's theory required testing in other cities.
Baseball was good to New York this year: the defending champion Yankees again finished in the American League playoffs, and the Mets actually won more games than the Cleveland Indians. Ergo, circulation advanced by 0.3 percent at the Times, 1.5 percent at the Post, and 0.7 percent at Newsday. However, it fell by 1.8 percent at the Daily News. Circulation rose by 0.7 percent at the Houston Chronicle, as the Astros triumphed in the NL Central, and by 2.1 percent at the Los Angeles Times, which got to report the Dodgers' sizzling race with the Giants in the NL West. But that race notwithstanding, circulation dropped by 0.6 percent at the San Francisco Chronicle. And go figure--it climbed by 1.3 percent at the Boston Globe even though the Red Sox wound up six games below .500. What's more, circulation jumped by 2.2 percent at the suburban Daily Herald--which was covering the same two lousy teams as the Tribune. Perhaps the Herald's advantage was the nearby Kane County Cougars, who stormed to the championship series in the Midwest League.
If boring baseball's at the root of the Tribune's problems, the corporation's in a unique position to do something about it. The Tribune Company owns one of Chicago's two boring teams--probably the more boring of the two. A bold reorganization that assigned the Cubs to the circulation or sports department should be considered. But more likely is a full-barrel Tribune analysis of the north-side nine. Profound if stupefying lessons might be learned if a task force of 37 reporters were assigned to attend a single Cubs game in May and then commence an eight-month-long pitch-by-pitch dissection of that tussle, with a focus on distracting shoe contracts and on suspect hand signals that allow a skipper to manipulate the action from the sidelines.
The Tribune article acknowledging its circulation dive candidly admitted that "many newspapers in the last two years have deliberately cut back so-called unprofitable circulation, the expensive delivery of papers to distant readers who are less likely to respond to the advertising they see." This suggests that the Audit Bureau of Circulations needs to introduce a new set of figures on "riffraff expunged." Much was said at "The Purposes of Journalism" on behalf of the wall that divides church and state. (Church is the newsroom, if you're wondering.) One ethically delicate subject that doesn't come up as often is the practice of reporting the news without fear or favor--and then telling some people they can't read it any longer.
Michael Sneed pulled off a coup in the Sunday Sun-Times, an exclusive page-one interview with Jay and Kim Warburton, the family that raised "Baby Richard" for the first four years of his life. About all the story lacked was Otto and Daniela Kirchner's side, but a Q and A wasn't a format likely to provide it.
Another reporter could have written a sidebar offering the Kirchners' views, but that didn't occur to the Sun-Times. So Michael J. Foley, Otto Kirchner's attorney, suggested Kirchner submit a response. Largely written by Foley, Kirchner's statement declared that contrary to what "the gossip columnist printed as fact," he and Daniela were living together. Contrary to what the Warburtons told Sneed, he and Daniela offered them "unconditional visitation rights," but their response "was so freighted with conditions that it was impossible to consider." And Kirchner asserted, "The Warburtons never offered visitation to Daniela or me during those four terrible years" he fought for custody of his son.
Foley sent the statement to the Sun-Times. He told me he and the Kirchners had in mind a news story receiving play that approached the "splash" given Sneed's interview. Instead, he said, the Sun-Times proposed trimming the statement and running it as a letter to the editor. Among the passages that would have ended up on the cutting-room floor was this: "We have been surprised and saddened to learn that our privacy could be invaded and our lives disrupted at will by the gossip columnists and paparazzi who live on human misery. We ask the news media to leave us alone."
Foley and the Kirchners wanted more than the Sun-Times was offering. So Foley sent Kirchner's statement to the City News Bureau, which spiked it on grounds that City News hadn't covered the Sneed column Kirchner was reacting to.
Foley told me the story has been told at least once from the Kirchners' point of view, though not where Chicagoans could read it. Last May London's Sunday Times carried a long magazine article on the Baby Richard saga written with a European spin. If you wonder what that is, it's this: "Otakar Kirchner, the child's biological father, was, not to put too fine a point on it, foreign. A Czech immigrant, no less. The American people, most of them third- or fourth-generation immigrants, have no truck with first-generation arrivistes."
The "Purposes of Journalism" session I sat in on offered the usual hand-wringing on the state of local TV news. What's positive was overlooked. Once the news at ten was a headline service that could be mistaken for more. Now it's so bad it's impossible to watch under the illusion that you're being informed.
Take our quiz. The headline "Aging gene isolated" just appeared in:
(A.) the Weekly World News
(B.) the Chicago Sun-Times.
The admission "Other researchers urged caution in interpreting the findings, saying they suspected the newly discovered gene has little or nothing to do with aging. They said the gene looks more like a standard 'housekeeping gene' that is important for a variety of mundane cellular processes" showed up:
(A.) in paragraph two
(B.) at the tail end of the article.
Citizen Soldiers, Stephen Ambrose's new history of the western front in World War II, recalls the following reaction to the outset of the Battle of the Bulge: "In New York the stock market, which had tumbled after the German retreat from France in anticipation of an early peace, became bullish again."
Which reminds us not only of the amorality of the market but of its stupidity. The German offensive looked like a welcome catastrophe to Wall Street, but Eisenhower recognized that it played into the Allies' hands. Rolling the dice, Hitler ordered the German army out of its defensive positions into an exposed salient where it could be destroyed. The battle shortened the war.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Archer Prewitt.